If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, why is it still hosting revenge porn?

Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. Facebook won't do anything about it.

Facebook has a problem with women. That was clear about the time it started to take down photos that showed women’s mastectomy scars whilst leaving images that apparently showed women beaten and raped.

As problems go, it’s been a longstanding one (I wrote back in October 2011 about their housing of rape promoting groups – groups like “Riding your Girlfriend softly, Cause you don’t want to wake her up” – and refusal to do anything about it). It’s also been progressing. As last month’s outcry over misogynistic pages showed, over the past two years horrific (warning: not hyperbole) words have been joined by horrific pictures

After a targeted campaign by feminist groups, Facebook finally listened. They made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate. 

I wonder, then, why "revenge porn" pages are sitting on the site.

By unhappy accident, I stumbled upon one last week. After less than five minutes of investigation via the Facebook search tool, I’d found 22 more. (Having continued to search over the past few days, it was creepily easy to keep finding new pages.)

Pages with the declared intention to (quote) "Expose all the slags and sluts" and "Inbox pictures of your nude ex and get them back for the bad things!" Want to get back at your girlfriend for leaving you? Upload a photo she gave you in private and let strangers help you abuse her. 

It’s been known for a while that there are websites dedicated to "revenge porn". They’re about humiliation and shaming women for being sexual. And now Facebook is part of it.

On the site’s pages, there’s photo after photo of women in their underwear or holding their breasts. Some are masturbating. One I saw was a woman giving oral sex – a picture that showed her face.

Facebook’s "comment" and "like" functions allow an added layer of sleazy misogyny. With a click, users can rate what they see or write what they’d like to do to the victim. (Examples: "i would smash you in" and "there a boss pear [sic] of tits to sponk all over lool.")

Under one photo of a woman holding her breasts that showed her bedroom, users proceeded to have a conversation about how she needed to “spend less time in front of that mirror and start cleaning up that room. what [sic] shit hole.” (10 likes).  I imagine they lifted that one out of the sexist’s rulebook: while calling a woman a slag, tell her to do more housework.

Whether the victim is named varies. On some pages, there are photos of undressed women and above each – with a chilling lack of comment – is their full name. On others, the photos are anonymous and fellow Facebook users bate the poster to name and shame her.

Many of the pages have a town or city in their title, as if this is a trend with regional affiliations. Disturbingly, it also makes it easier for anyone to identify and find the victims. (The NS has decided not to give any more details, or link to any such sites, to avoid further distress to those featured.)

Holly Jacobs, Founder of End Revenge Porn, tells me that so far she’s seen limited action from Facebook in dealing with the issue. “Several people have told me that after they report pages like [these], Facebook refuses to remove them on account that they are not violating any of their terms of service,” she says. “I’d love for Facebook to eventually recognize that these are essentially promoting violence against women, but I suppose that will take some time.”

Pornography, in and of itself, clearly violates Facebook’s terms and conditions. As such, if you report a page that shows sexual acts or nudity, the explicit content means it should be taken down (though that's cold comfort to the naked victims in the meantime). But what about the revenge porn pages where women aren’t naked? Many of the victims I saw were in their bra and pants. To the cold wording of terms and conditions, an ex-boyfriend vengefully posting a photo of a woman in her underwear could be no different than a girl posting a photo of herself on holiday in a bikini. If Facebook’s point of concern is nudity rather than misogyny, what happens to the (technically covered) women currently having their image abused on the site?

Or put it another way, does a woman having her image put online to shame and humiliate only matter to Facebook if it shows her nipples or genitals?

If Facebook is serious about gender-based hate, it needs to get to grips with this: clarifying where it stands on revenge porn and dealing with what’s currently festering under its name. Or, as its users stumble across themselves exposed for other’s twisted amusement, Facebook’s problem with women is only going to get darker. 

Facebook has made a public commitment to improve their handling of gender-based hate, and yet revenge porn is depressingly easy to find on the site. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.